Have you noticed that the spookiest colors of the season are not orange and black but red and blue? As Halloween slips into Election Day, the race for the White House has scared more grown-ups than any trip to the haunted house.

I’m not talking about John McCain’s farewell fright tour, although it is sad to see the senator trade in his superhero costume for that of fearmonger. After trying on assorted masks, he’s settled on profiling his opponent as “Barack the Redistributor” who will take money away from hardworking Americans, “coddle criminals” and, no doubt, ask Bill Ayers to be secretary of state.

The Republican ads — cue the tanks, the Islamic extremists and the rough seas! — have thrown every available hobgoblin into the mix except the mushroom cloud. McCain himself seems to be uttering some weird incantation when he caricatures Barack Obama’s policies as so much “blah, blah, blah.”

With all the infighting in the coven around the maverick and the fair maiden, it’s tempting to call the McCain campaign the Gang That Couldn’t Fly a Broomstick Straight.

But the striking thing is not how the Republicans are trying to scare undecided voters. It’s how spooked the most committed Democrats are.

The closer Obama comes to victory, the more terror strikes deep in the (blue) heartland. The better things look, the more they worry that it’s “trick or trick” time. The election, like that dollar bill on the sidewalk, will be whipped out of their hands.

Did that pundit say that Obama is on the precipice of victory? See I told you, he’s on a precipice! Does Obama have a lead in the polls between 4 percent and 15 percent? Isn’t that the margin of error? Is Arizona now in play? BOO! Does Obama have more money? YIKES! Is Palin playing for 2012? EEEK!

Once this election was framed as a contest between fear and hope, with Obama leading the hope team. Now hope is politically incorrect and the Democrats have embraced their inner scaredy cat.

People who wouldn’t trust the Fox News weather report are forwarding ominous “fair and balanced” stories over the Internet. People who wouldn’t buy the same cigar that Rush Limbaugh smokes now tremble at his prophecy that “this is a close election.” People who laugh at Joe the Plumber still quiver when McCain says, “We’ve got them just where we want them.”

Every optimistic scenario for Obama is countered darkly by pre-emptive conspiracy theories explaining how it could turn into bad news.

The late Tom Bradley has gone down in history more for the dubious “Bradley effect” — a racial discrepancy between polling data and votes — than for his successes. If it isn’t fear of a covert racism, it’s fear of overt voter fraud. Or it’s fear that young voters are no-show voters. And Obama himself told a group of donors, “Don’t underestimate the capacity of Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

There are hard-core Democrats so hunkered down against hope that if you told them the only way McCain could win is by personally bringing Osama bin Laden home in chains, they’d respond: “SEEE! I told you! That’s the October Surprise!”

I’ve never seen such a case of the jitters. Democrats are knocking on wood, spitting to avert the evil eye, and waving a rabbit’s foot, while waiting for some shoe somewhere to drop.

It’s a defense against the deep primal belief that the party that brought us warlocks such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove will do “it” again. In the words of one hope refusenik: “I’ve seen this movie before.” The name of it is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

The 2000 version had Al Gore with half a million more popular votes and George Bush with one more vote in the Supreme Court. In the 2004 sequel, John Kerry’s three-point lead in the exit polls disappeared into Bush’s 3 million lead in the real polls. It’s enough to make even the Obama girl scream and Democrats exchange dire warnings about overconfidence.

Well, I saw those movies too. I am not someone who dresses up for Halloween as an Easter bunny. And it’s not time to fill the Cabinet seats. But maybe Democrats could be a little less terrified of being hopeful.

Do you remember when the Obama rallying cry was “Yes we can”? Now we are in the scary season and here’s the new mantra: The only thing we have to fear is hope itself.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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